For many people, "communications skills" translate to being able to get your point across in conversation or writing. But there's another side to the communication equation that deserves your attention—and practice.
Listening is all but a lost art in modern society. Even if you can manage to get someone's attention, it will soon wane. The average human attention span is now only about 8 seconds. That's less than a goldfish (though to be fair, goldfish don't text).
Why is listening important? Because as much as we all want to persuade people with our ideas and intellect, everybody we interact with also wants to know that we are hearing them, are open to their perspective and can be won over to their side. Listening is what helps us make sense of and understand other people's points of view. Whether you're having difficulty finding common ground with a coworker or trying to understand where a friend is coming from, good listening skills can help you cross the divide.
But first, you have to know that listening is much more than hearing. You need to not only hear what your counterpart is saying but internalize their message for listening to occur. Here are five tips to help you be a better listener—and therefore a better friend, coworker, collaborator, employee, client and manager.
It sounds counterintuitive but good listening actually starts with your feet. If you feel your mind wandering or are otherwise preoccupied, planting both feet firmly on the ground can help maintain focus on what's happening in front of you. Put both feet on the floor, take a deep breath and focus your attention on the speaker. If you feel the need to fidget (the hallmark of poor listening), try to imagine roots growing from your shoe soles into the earth below, picturing yourself as a tall, stoic, unmoving tree.
Maintain eye contact
Letting your eyes roam around the room when you're talking one-on-one is the height of rudeness. But it's not much better when you're in a group setting. Take a peek at your coworkers the next time you're in a staff meeting and you'll probably see some slackjawed distant stares, wandering eyes and plenty of folks checking their phones. Looking at whoever is speaking not only lets them know you're paying attention, it helps you notice non-verbal cues, like posture and expression, and keeps your focus on the topic at hand.
Silence your inner monologue
The greatest barrier to understanding is often our own prejudice. We are emotional beings who can't help but interpret what someone else is saying based on our own thoughts and feelings. Psychiatrists advise trying to "get to zero" or to an emotional blank slate to truly understand another person's point of view. Identify and label all the ways you feel about the person speaking (especially if you're attempting to have a dialogue). What motivations are you assuming in their communication? How might you interpret what the speaker is saying if you felt differently about them? At the very least, try to put your own emotions off to the side to keep them from coloring what the speaker is trying to say.
Interrupting someone is not only disruptive, it's dismissive. It's basically announcing that what you have to say is more important than what they're already communicating. If there's a point you want to make, jot it down and come back to it once the speaker is done. Once you've made your note, refocus on what they're saying by practicing the tips above. If you slip up and interrupt, say you're sorry and urge the other person to continue.
Run it back
It's finally your chance to chime in! If you've been collaborating with someone, trying to work out a problem or decide how to proceed on a project, repeating back what you just heard in your own words is an excellent way to let the other person know that you heard them and understand where they're coming from. Try to summarize what you've internalized and let the other person have some room to correct you or add to your understanding.
In a world that encourages people to talk more, at greater volume and more emphatically to be heard, listening is powerful. It's a critical business skill that costs nothing to master and can help you out in every area of your life. So the next time you feel the urge to jump in to a conversation, take a deep breath, sit back and try to hear what the other person is really trying to say.